“Carry on, carry on,” he would say to all the soldiers who stood at attention as we walked passed. “Carry on, carry on.”
At 6’4”, he’s an imposing figure. A major general in the U.S. Army, he’s one of the ranking officers in charge of the U.S. Strategic Command -- one of the 10 Unified Commands of the United States military. We walked at a brisk pace down the windowless hallways, three or four others trailing behind, including a protocol officer assigned to escort me wherever I went. Here I was, walking next to a two-star general, heading deeper and deeper underground to get a glimpse of the control center that monitors nuclear missiles around the globe -- ours and the bad guys’.
Some of the hallways had huge, solid steel doors left over from the Cold War. One hall had an armed guard who stood at attention as soon as he saw the general coming. “Carry on,” the general said again. When we reached the final doorway, another armed guard stood at attention behind the bulletproof glass as one of the staffers held the metal gate open for us to go in.
The room had been “sanitized” for my visit. The huge screens on the wall displayed slideshows of planes and ships, and an occasional slide said “Welcome, Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why.” All the stations -- at least the ones I could see -- had all their screens turned off. A Wall Street trading desk has 2 or 3 screens per station -- these had 5 or 10 screens per station. I was given a brief tour by the commander of the watch. And then we left.
This was certainly one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had with the military. Every part of it was like a scene out of a movie, but for the fact that this was no movie.
Spending time with the military certainly lends itself to some remarkable experiences, and I’ve been privileged to have had my share. Watching an F-15 take off, seeing an F-22 make a sharp turn right over my head, walking into a large room with a general and watching everyone stand to attention as we walk in. The pomp and circumstance, the tradition, the technology, the courage, the honor, the bravado -- it’s all there. But there is something else I’ve had the honor of experiencing in the time I've spent with the men and women who volunteer to serve our country. There is a side to their job that few of us get to see and is rarely shown in movies: the human side.
Almost without exception, the people I've met, regardless of rank, are some of the most intensely human. They appreciate the value of life more than the rest of us do, and they understand the importance of protecting the organization more than the rest of us do. For example, if I’m speaking at a corporate conference and the subject of career comes up, it’s likely someone will ask, “How do I use your concepts to get a promotion?” But not in the military. They ask, “How should we promote? How do we use your concepts to ensure that we are always promoting the best and the brightest?” Whereas in the private sector people seem more concerned about their own skins, in the military they seem more concerned about the souls with whom they serve.
No matter how tough or what rank, they shake hands while looking you straight in the eye more often than people in the private sector do, and will very often grab your arm as they shake your hand. I have been hugged by more people in uniform than by people in suits. It’s their way of saying thank you if they appreciate your contribution -- and they have no problem showing the human side of themselves.
Getting to see the things I saw definitely goes on my list of “crazy things I’ve done in my life,” but it was what I learned about showing others your "thank you" rather than just saying it. It’s what I learned about caring about those who give rather than looking for more ways to take that I will carry with me. Though their job sometimes (and necessarily) includes killing, make no mistake: those who choose to serve our country care more about life than anyone I’ve ever met.
This article originally appeared on askmen.com